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In Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, Tom tells the story of his young adult years, when he cared for his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. Because his father left when he was young, Tom was thrust into the position of having to support his family by circumstance rather than by his own choice. Because of this, Tom only sees the negatives of his current life and dreams of the freedom of abandoning his family like his father did. However, once he finally acts on his desires and escapes, he can’t shake his memories of his sister and guilt for those he left behind. Because Tom uses the past and future to distract himself from the confines of his subjective reality, he is never able to find peace of mind, demonstrating that a fulfilling life lies in living in the present moment.
Through allowing dreams for the future to cloud his judgment, Tom loses sight of the value of supporting loved ones and providing for his family. Because of his father leaving him, Tom has to support the entire family financially through a back-breaking job at the warehouse. He feels stifled by his family, exclaiming to his mother ‘Look! I’ve got no thing, no single thing … in my life that I can call my OWN! … Yesterday you confiscated my books!’. He shares his living space with his family, shares his money from his job with his jobless sister and mother, and never receives much credit for the effort he puts in. That is not to say that Tom’s contribution is not important, but because this story is told from Tom’s perspective, it shows that he does not feel he receives just credit for the work he puts in.
While his role as the narrator might put into doubt the validity of the events that he is retelling, his desire for free will remains a constant motivator for his actions as they occurred and in retrospect. He exclaims, “You think that I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that – Celotex interior! With — fluorescent — tubes! Look! I’d rather somebody packed up a crowbar and battered out my brains — than go back mornings!” He feels attacked from all sides, with his warehouse job sucking away his life force and his mother taking away every ounce of freedom he has, whether it be raunchy novels or trying to deny him the luxury of leaving the house at night. For Tom, these past times represent his dreams of a more exciting life, as “adventure is something he don’t have much of at work, so he goes to the movies.’ The thrill of the lives he sees in the movies serves as inspiration for the life he wants to live. This inspiration makes it clear that the main obstacle for Tom in living this life is his family. But, these past times most likely seem like a dangerous influence from Amanda’s perspective and she is most likely only trying to help her son.
However, it is especially apparent from his memories of the events that Tom never takes time to consider this and only considers his mom’s actions from a more negative perspective. As the play goes on, Tom becomes more and more disillusioned with the life he lives and the lack of gratitude for his efforts, leading him to “the point of committing himself to a future that doesn’t include the warehouse and Mr. Mendoza or even a night-school course in public speaking.’ He has no idea what his future is or what it will entail for him, but at the time he feels that anything is preferable to enduring at home with his family anymore. This view of the future as an indistinct positive experience full of adventure is not only a fallacy but underlies the harm that it will cause the family that Tom no longer supports. He does not evaluate the risks of his actions and only focuses on the positives, leading to the expected consequences. Through abandoning his family, Tom hopes to finally achieve his dreams but finds himself confronted with the consequences of those actions.
Disillusioned with his job and social life, Tom contemplates leaving his family, telling his sister ‘You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who the hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?’. He compares his living situation to a nailed-up coffin, implying that he can’t escape without removing nails, or can’t leave without affecting those he supports. He especially focuses on the consequences of leaving Laura defenseless, as she was already fragile and shy due to her illnesses. But he eventually decides to leave, “descending the steps of the fire escape for a last time and following, from then on, in his father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.’ He goes looking for meaning in his life in the imaginations of his future. He doesn’t know what he wants, but he can’t stand being in his current situation. He takes for granted everything that is good and leaves behind his obligation to those that supported him his entire life. He leaves behind him a wake of negative effects and hopes to focus on his future without the dead weight.
Once he finally decides to escape, Tom can’t put the past behind him. He is filled with guilt, saying “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest anything-anything that can blow your candles out!”. He hoped to shake the deadweight of supporting others but instead inherited the weight of the guilt of leaving those he loved. He looked to the future and saw his dreams, but in his chase, he couldn’t shake the memories of the family he left behind to fend for themselves. He chased an idea that wasn’t real, a figment of his imagination of what his life could be, and left behind everything that his life actually was. Everything that gave his life meaning, like his mom Amanda and his sister Laura, to chase the thrill of freedom. But the thrill wasn’t enough to forget, and now Tom uses anything to distract himself from the fact that he left his sister defenseless. He reached for the future, but couldn’t shake the past, leading to the unsatisfactory life he describes. He never reached peace of mind and never lived in the present moment, always finding a reason to focus on what were essentially faded memories or imaginary scenarios concocted in his head.
Through Tom’s experience, as narrated by Tom himself, the necessity of living in the present moment is highlighted. In Tom’s recollection of the events, the moments that stood out consisted of moments with his family, instead of the moments at the movies. He didn’t tell the stories of the nights he left the apartment, only of the moments he spent with his family. Even when he broke Laura’s glass statues while fighting with his mother and was left with Laura, he remembers “Laura clinging weakly to the mantel with her face averted” and “then crossing to the shelf” and “dropping awkwardly on his knees to collect the fallen glass, glancing at Laura as if he would speak but couldn’t. He can’t shake the memories of when he let down his family and loved ones, with his selfish actions. By focusing on the arguments and conflicts with his mom, Tom appears to be trying to justify leaving, but this, in fact, reveals that he can’t leave behind these memories. He doesn’t retell the stories of the nights spent drinking alcohol, but the nights he spent with his family, whether it be arguing or bonding over the shared hardships. He retells the nights where he felt sure in his values and what mattered most to him. The nights where he connected with the present moment and put aside the imaginations of another time or another place. He always supported Laura throughout his life, helping her up when she slipped and keeping her safe, and that was clearly one of his driving motivations.
Once he abandons his main motivation in life, he is understandably lost and without direction, looking back on a time when he understood his purpose, supporting his family. When talking to his mother, he says ‘Laura seems all those things to you and me because she’s ours and we love her. We don’t even notice she’s crippled anymore.’ He already knew before he left that he needed Laura just as much as she needed him. Yet, by losing sight of this at the time, Tom can only look back in hindsight on life when he wasn’t so confused and filled with guilt. Through not living in the present moment, Tom fails to find a purpose in life and ends up chasing dreams only to be dragged down by guilt for past actions. When he was living with his family, he only dreamed of the future and failed to appreciate his mom and sister’s presence. When he left his family, he only reminisced on the sister he left behind defenseless with her non-working mother. He never appreciated the moment he was in and focused on everything that was wrong with his life instead of everything that was going right. This play serves as a reminder of the dangers of pining for what one doesn’t have and instead extolls the virtues of appreciating what you do have before it’s gone forever.
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